Sergio Lobera continues to weave his magic in India as Odisha eyes maiden ISL title

Under Lobera, the Juggernauts have not just contained their meteoric rise to India but instead, carried it to Asia as well by reaching the AFC Cup inter-zonal semifinals.

Published : Mar 30, 2024 11:17 IST , CHENNAI - 5 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Sergio Lobera, Head Coach of Odisha FC.
FILE PHOTO: Sergio Lobera, Head Coach of Odisha FC. | Photo Credit: FSDL

FILE PHOTO: Sergio Lobera, Head Coach of Odisha FC. | Photo Credit: FSDL

There is an age-old adage in football - the manager needs time to show results. However, when it comes to Indian football, Sergio Lobera has always been a rebel, challenging the concept of time being proportional to how well a manager can shape his team. His modus operandi - instant success. 

Be it winning the League Shield with FC Goa in the 2019-20 Indian Super League (ISL) season or the famous double (League Shield and ISL title) with Mumbai City FC in 2020-21, Lobera has displayed the innate ability to win silverware in his first season with the clubs he manages. Cut to the present, Odisha FC, under his tutelage, can win its maiden ISL title and even the League Shield, albeit the chances of that happening are less

The Juggernauts have not just contained their meteoric rise to India but instead, carried it to Asia as well. After topping its group in the AFC Cup, ousting big names such as Mohun Bagan Super Giant and the Bashundhara Kings, it fell to defending A-League champion Central Coast Mariners in the inter-zonal semifinals, losing 4-0 in the away leg and playing a goalless draw at home. 

“When it came to the away game, the situation was not very helpful because we had to play Chennaiyin on March 3, travel to Australia, and play on March 7… the players did not have enough rest, and it was not possible to change the date of the game or even the time. It is not to make excuses, but I didn’t think we had any help to prepare in the best condition,” Lobera told  Sportstar

Numbers and tactics are not absolute

Odisha FC heads into the final round of matches in the league phase, conceding the fewest goals (17 till now). In comparison, the Juggernauts conceded 32 goals last season, when it finished sixth and 44 in the 2020-21 season when it finished bottom of the table. For the Juggernauts, it is not just their defence that has been rejuvenated, but also their attacking metrics. Lobera’s men have an average of 1.5 goals per match (second-best in the league) and 38.9 per cent shot accuracy (best in the league). 

FILE PHOTO: Odisha FC players Roy Krishna (bottom) and Diego Mauricio (top).
FILE PHOTO: Odisha FC players Roy Krishna (bottom) and Diego Mauricio (top). | Photo Credit: FSDL

FILE PHOTO: Odisha FC players Roy Krishna (bottom) and Diego Mauricio (top). | Photo Credit: FSDL

In terms of passing and chance creation, Odisha has the highest passing average per 90 (512.5) and the best passing accuracy (79.6 per cent) in ISL this season. While the passing style of football, at times, can tend to focus on just flair and not the end product, Lobera’s Odisha has not fallen into that trap, which is evident from its attacking metrics. Also, having two players in the top-five goal-scorers list (Roy Krishna, joint-top scorer with 12 goals and Diego Mauricio in fifth place with seven goals) strengthens this narrative. 

“The numbers are there, and they show our style of play and philosophy, but these numbers need to turn into results, and if we talk about results, we have played 13 matches without losing. This is amazing when you are playing in three different competitions. It is also helpful to have players who have played under me before. They can help the young players to understand what the coach’s idea is,” Lobera added, emphasising that he couldn’t be prouder of his players for giving their best. 

Lobera, being the meticulous coach that he is, spends his fair share of time in front of the drawing board, brainstorming tactics and crunching numbers with his players and staff. But the Spaniard says that football is a game that stretches beyond team meetings and dressing-room talks. While he needs players who understand the crux of his playing style on the field, he believes in giving the freedom of expression to his boys on the pitch.

Among the big guns

Before this season, Odisha FC was never in the category of heavy hitters. While the Juggernauts were never faulted for their initiative and effort on the pitch, they were never included in talks involving title contenders. 

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However, this season, Odisha has been a different story under Lobera. Having made its mark in Asia, reaching the final of the Super Cup and currently fourth in the league, it wouldn’t be a sacrilege for the players and fans to dream about a maiden ISL title. But the spotlight is usually complemented by expectations, which can get overwhelming for the players and the coaching staff. However, the Spaniard is looking at things differently. 

“There is no pressure. We are living a dream. For some teams, it is almost compulsory to finish top, but for us, it is a dream. We are definitely ambitious and working towards winning the title, but whatever happens at the end of the season, I will be proud. At this stage, no one wants to lose, and it is the same for my team, but almost no one thought Odisha would be at this stage, this time of the season.”

Return to league action

ISL action returns after the international break, with Odisha FC travelling to the Kanteerava Stadium to play Bengaluru FC. Lobera’s men will start as the favourite on paper, but Sunil Chhetri and Co also have a lot at stake, as the Blues are still in the race for that precious playoff spot

“It is always difficult to play them (Bengaluru), especially when they are playing at home. The numbers on the table are not a fair reflection of the team’s potential. They have so many players from the national team, like Chinglesana (Singh), Nikhil (Poojary), Suresh (Singh Wangjam) and of course, Chhetri. Every game is like a final to them to get to the playoffs. It will be a difficult game, but we need to focus on ourselves and continue to be loyal to our style of play.”

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